Keeping 5 clubs or 7 balls in the air at the same time might look easy for a guy who is a cliff diver, a high diver, and a synchronized platform diver, who hopes to compete for his new country at the Paris 2024 Olympics at the age of 40.
Although the pool deck was cleared of divers about 20 mins earlier, a solitary athlete remained under the gigantic white tent which marked the athlete preparation area. Everyone else was driven away by the lightning or the torrential rain that twice disrupted training on Thursday afternoon.
There would be no more diving training today for any of the 55 high divers competing at the High Diving World Cup. On the afternoon before the first day of competition, Gary Hunt was alone, juggling four clubs, in the shape of a bowling pin, while a fifth club lay at his feet.
Hunt stood less than 25 feet from the foot of the $5.1 million dollar diving tower at the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Center. The new tower was empty and closed for training. The Tower is the only one in the western hemisphere, the other similar facility is located in China.
Hunt’s focus wasn’t on anything except mastering his task at hand. Keeping the four clubs in the air was his first priority, but his eagerness to add a fifth one to his private juggling act was contemplated and seemed just moments away from successful execution. Hunt hadn’t imagined that anyone would see him; he fully expected to be performing for an audience of one, himself.
Hunt is a world champion in High Diving but his focus didn’t seem to be on the two separate dives he would need to execute from the 27m tower tomorrow. If successful, he could qualify to compete in the high diving event at the World Aquatics Championships - Fukuoka 2023, slated to take place this July. Hunt hadn’t seen the new tower before his arrival on Tuesday.
In fact, on his third day in Florida, he had been to the top of the tower to take only one practice dive. He explained that he was coming directly from an event in France where he successfully qualified for this year's World Aquatics Championships in the 10m synchronized event.
Hunt, like his 32 male competitors, must execute incredible acrobatics from heights of 27m in an ultimate display of focus and skill. No one has counted the number of steps to reach the top of the 27m platform where the men dive from, the women launch from the 20m perch. A high dive is estimated to take less than 3 seconds, at an approximate speed of 85 kpm, and even a perfectly executed dive is a painful shock to the body.
The 38-year-old Hunt does this exceptionally well having mastered these skills in both cliff diving and high diving more than 17 years since he won a bronze medal at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. Hunt is the 2019 World champion in high diving at the World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju, Korea where he set and continues to hold the championship record. Four years earlier he won the gold medal in the 2015 Kazan event. A silver medal from the 2013 Barcelona edition of the event, is evidence that Hunt is the most successful male diver in the brief history of the World Aquatics high diving discipline.
High Diving is a relatively new discipline for World Aquatics, but when energy drink manufacturer Red Bull decided to launch a cliff diving world series of events in 2009 Hunt was ready to ascend new heights.
Hunt wasn’t chasing fame or fortune. Instead, he was energized by the challenge of what many refer to as an extreme sport, and perhaps an opportunity for a modest living and a chance to travel the world. Since that inaugural season in 2009, when he finished second, Hunt has been on a run of dominance that would be extraordinary in any sport, winning 42 of 82 Red Bull cliff diving events, and nine of 11 world series titles.
He has a reputation for pushing the sport to new extremes and inventing new moves to stay ahead of his competition.
What’s behind your juggling on the pool deck?
I juggle because I like to improve at something, I like to learn new things. It's what attracted me to high diving, it's just all the tricks you can learn. And then I found out that it offered a positive side effect, it’s a good relaxation exercise. It kind of takes my mind off the stress of the competition. I am juggling balls and clubs. No chainsaws just yet!
So there are four clubs in your hands and one on the ground, can you do five?
Five is what I'm aiming for really. With balls, it's seven balls but only five clubs, and it's a bit shaky at the moment.
When did you take up juggling?
My mom bought me juggling balls when I broke my leg at 16 years old. But I really took it seriously when I met a friend, another juggler. He was a diver and a juggler and he was really, really good. And straight away I wanted to learn. Not as part of a show, it's just a pastime.
There's not a soul on the pool deck but you're still yeah working on your juggling skill.
I feel at home here and yeah this is for me, not for anyone else to see. It's just something I like to do and something to keep me occupied and to keep my brain working.
The Fort Lauderdale diving tower is new this year, is this your first time climbing the tower for a dive off the 20m or 27m platform?
I've heard about this idea of a diving tower at this pool for what seems like the last decade. This year I've seen lots of photos and videos from the opening ceremony where Steven Lobue (a retired American high diver and USA Coach) dove earlier this year. It feels like I've been biting at my lip to get here and finally, I got the chance.
All of the divers have been impacted by the lightning each of the past three days, so how many dives have you been able to take off the 27m platform?
I just did one this morning, none yesterday or any on my first day. I was planning to take three dives today. I did one and then it started raining. I probably could have rushed and done one more, but I knew they were going to shut the pool down before I could get the whole thing finished. I know my dives. I just came from a 10m synchro qualification in France. I qualified for the European Games and also for the World Championships this year in the 10m synchro. I came straight from there to here so I had to play catch up.
What's on your World Aquatics resume?
I dove at the high diving event in Abu Dhabi held in December 2021. Last year I did the 10m mixed synchro in Budapest and it was okay. It was kind of a stepping stone for me with slightly easier dives but getting used to diving internationally. Diving synchro again is something I hadn't done for over a decade. But yeah, now it's with a male partner and we hope to qualify for the Paris Olympic Games next year.
You were born in London, but you're competing for France, now with a chance to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. How did this come about?
I started working in France in a show, in fact, the same show where I started juggling, and I met my girlfriend there. She was the presenter of the diving show that I worked in. And little by little I moved to France, started training with the French team, and then Brexit was happening. I thought it would be safer to have a French passport, and then eventually it just felt right. It felt strange to be training with the French team but competing for Great Britain. I felt better competing for France and became a French citizen in 2020.
What of your many talents impresses your girlfriend the most, and you can brag a bit in your reply!
Well, she's now my fiancée. Yeah, she's obviously somewhat impressed with what I do but she's known me from before I was world champion or anything like that but I don’t know what impresses her most. I'm quite humble and quiet. I don't like to brag or anything like that. Sometimes being a champion can get to people's heads and I feel like I've got my feet on the ground and I think she appreciates that.
Does she have a sports background as well?
No, she's an actress so we are two different worlds that intersected when she was a presenter for a show that I did in France at one of my events. And soon after we were together. She kept doing the shows for a few years, but now she doesn't present the diving shows anymore. Instead, she does workshops with children. We first met in 2009 and I asked her to marry me last year, and we will get married in October in France.